Published on September 7, 2018
Thank you to Valve for setting us up with a demo session at PAX West.
Growing up with Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh, as well as playing more recent titles like Hearthstone, I have always had a knack for card games. Although the nature of the genre has partly shifted from physical to digital, I felt confident picking up the mouse as I sat down to play my first game of Artifact. I had seen a small amount of Artifact gameplay beforehand, and many familiar card game concepts were present such as mana, creatures, and spells. My initial thoughts were that all I needed to do was apply what I learned in other card games to the three separate boards, each board being called a “lane.” I was dead wrong.
The goal in Artifact is to destroy two enemy towers, whether that be in the same lane or two different lanes. To fight your way to victory, each deck in Artifact has several hero cards. These cards are powerful characters that allow you to cast spells corresponding to their color from the lane that they are in. Each hero strongly dictates the flow of battle for each lane and the placement of your hero cards is crucial to both your short and long-term strategy. As your heroes struggle for control of each lane, each lane is given access to its mana pool allowing for spells to be slung at very frequent intervals. Most interesting to me was the importance that the left-most lane has on the game. In Artifact, combat and spells are resolved one lane at a time, but the game features special spells that can affect creeps and heroes in other lanes. Since the left-most lane always goes first, controlling this lane allows you to affect the lanes on the right before they have a chance to act. Strategy still takes the front seat despite this as overcommitting to it may be your downfall if your opponent musters their forces on the other lanes.
Throughout my playthrough, one common facet of most card games seemed to be missing: a curve. A “curve” in card games refers to the ability to play increasingly powerful cards on queue as the amount of mana (or whatever resource you use to play cards) increases. Artifact somewhat puts the concept of curve in the backseat as the powerful hero cards that you command are always available to play, given they are not on cooldown. That isn’t to say that deck building is useless, but it does relieve a lot of the stress of starting the game with a lousy hand as you always have some powerful heroes to start off with.
Another concept that is less noticeable is the concept of card advantage. In most games, the player that gets more efficient trades and builds a better deck usually ends up with more cards in their hand than their opponent. With more cards in hand, that player has better options for how they want to strategize and control the flow of the game, giving them an advantage (hence, card advantage!). With that in mind, traditional card games allow players to divert all their cards to win the singular board. However, in Artifact, having resources split between three lanes means that the player with fewer cards still has many more options in what they can do. Additionally, the game has a unique “shop” phase where players can buy equipment and spells with the gold they have earned that game. While this traditionally favors the player who is winning, a strong late-game spell like Thunder God’s Wrath can quickly turn the tides of the game with a large gold bounty that can be used to buy cards.
The one aspect of the game I did not enjoy as much was the random elements is employed. Although my deck’s spell cards avoided random effects, the game itself has randomness built into the start of each turn. The first mechanic it does this with is the creep (small minions) spawns at the beginning of each turn. Creeps are useful for soaking up damage and protecting weaker heroes from direct attacks. Unlike heroes though, creeps are randomly placed in lanes at the start of each turn. This can hurt when creeps are placed in a lane you are already winning while another lane needs dire assistance. The second aspect of randomness I did not like was the target assignment at the start of each turn. In Artifact, the game randomly assigns what cards attack each other in each lane. These random target assignments can be frustrating when you lose control of a lane due to bad targeting. For example, your strong but almost dead hero might waste its final attack killing a creep instead of taking down an enemy hero with them. While these random aspects favor players who build balanced decks to account for these factors, it left a sour taste in my mouth when an unlucky start in one of my games snowballed into a complete loss.
While it borrows many concepts of card games new and old, Artifact is its own beast of a game. The simple addition of having to balance your resources between three lanes allows for a deep and tactical game that will require hundreds of hours to even begin to master. We haven’t even seen the deck building in the game, but it seems Valve has something special on their hands. I’ll be taking a deeper dive into Artifact next month when the beta releases.